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Vanuatu opposition calls for calm after shock pardon in bribery case

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The defendants, including Deputy PM Moana Carcasses (left), leaving court last week. Image: tivnews

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Pacific Media Watch

In light of the current state of Vanuatu’s government, after half its Members of Parliament were convicted of bribery, the Opposition has appealed for calm and peace from all members of the public, as responsible authorities remedy what it dubbed as a “gross abuse of power by demagogues in government”.

Following a controversial decision by Vanuatu’s Acting President Marcellino Pipite last weekend to pardon himself and his 13 convicted colleagues, the Opposition said in a statement that there had been a grievous travesty of justice by members of the Sato Kilman-led government.

But he assured they would not bow out, or sit idly and watch.
“The unprecedented actions are utterly irresponsible and unacceptable,” the Opposition said.

“We understand the tension and ire of the public in Port Vila in particular, because of Pipite’s folly last weekend.”

While it would also appear that Pipite was attempting a veiled threat during his public address to justify his action when he abused the president’s powers, the Opposition questions his judgment, saying Pipite and the others involved would not get away with it.

Pardons reversed
But a professor of constitutional law, Bill Hodge, said Vanuatu’s President, Baldwin Lonsdale may have the power to reverse the pardons granted last weekend.

Hodge told RNZI the pardons had the veneer of constitutional legitimacy but there was possibly a way forward.

“The Attorney-General will be doing some research and I bet he can’t find any precedents but I think it’s worth a go and I bet he (the President) can pass effectively a royal pardon in reverse and say, ‘the purported pardon issued by my substitute is reversed and is invalid and cannot be relied upon so that the judicial process can continue.”

Vanuatu’s traditional chiefs have called on the President to revoke the pardoning of the MPs.

Pipite, who is the Speaker of Parliament, became the acting head of state because the president was out of the country.

Court trial
Last week hundreds of people gathered outside the Supreme Court in Port Vila, to find that 14 government MPs, including Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses and other ministers, had been found guilty of giving and receiving corrupt payments.

“I therefore find the charges of corruption and bribery of officials proved by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt, and the following accused persons are accordingly convicted as charged,” Justice Mary Sey told a packed courtroom in Port Vila, ending a summary that took her more than two hours to read.

Only one MP, Robert Bohn, was found not guilty and acquitted. Another MP, Willie Jimmy, had already pleaded guilty before the trial.

The MPs were accused of having accepted bribes offered by Carcasses, who was then Opposition Leader, to secure their support in a vote of no confidence in the then-government.

Carcasses has admitted to offering loans to MPs from his own funds, but denies they were bribes to lure support for changing the government.

But Justice Sey said the evidence showed that the payments were corruptly given and accepted by MPs to influence their roles as public officials.

An Opposition MP, Ralph Regenvanu, said the decision meant most of the government’s 27 members were now convicted criminals.

He is calling on them to step down.

Regenvanu was quoted by RNZI as saying:

“In other countries people in these positions would have resigned once they were charged. Now that they’ve been convicted it remains to be seen whether they will do that honourable thing and resign, but judging from the fact that they didn’t resign when they were charged, I wouldn’t hold my breath about that.”

Regenvanu said the government was now hopelessly compromised, and the Prime Minister had a big decision to make.

Moving forward
Under Vanuatu law, the MPs are likely to automatically lose their seats once sentenced, and if that happens the government would likely become a minority one.

Regenvanu told RNZI all sides needed to come together to work out how the laws would be applied, so there could be a stable outcome for the governance of Vanuatu.

“That decision can either be that he resigns, or he tries to find a way to bring some of the opposition into his government, or we all sit down together and then decide what’s the best government that we can have that is going to take the government through to the next by-elections for all these seats, or whether we need to dissolve parliament and just have fresh elections because the cost of by-elections for 15 seats is probably going to be close to the cost of a general election.”

The MPs will return to court for sentencing on October  22, while Moana Carcasses has already announced that the MPs plan to appeal against the ruling.

Unlawful deposits
In a separate matter, the acting Leader of the Opposition, Ham Lini, has called for the government to explain why it has deposited one million vatu into each of the Opposition MPs’ private bank accounts.

A leaked letter from Lini to Prime Minister Sato Kilman on Monday said the US$8900 deposits were labelled “TC Pam Refund LPO”.

The letter is dated a day after the gazetting last Sunday of the pardoning of 14 MPs found guilty of corruption.

He has called on Kilman to explain the reason for the payments as he is concerned they are unlawful.

Lini said the payments were not budgeted for in the 2015 Appropriation Act.

An Opposition spokesperson said five MPs from the government side had defected to the opposition this week.

Source: Pacific Media Watch 9455